Anna Biller’s Handmade Satire is an Immodest Exploration of the Sexual Revolution



In the mod construction of filmmaker Anna Biller’s DIY 2007 comedy Viva, things were strictly commercial.  That is, vintage commercials and advertisements, which make up a bulk of the project’s influence.  According to Biller (who’d go on to make 2016’s acclaimed The Love Witch), who handcrafted Viva largely on her own. The all-consuming process spread over the course of several years.  Her starting point was a stack of old Playboys.  

She tore out all the ads and cartoons from the magazines and proceeded to study them.  Biller absolutely analyzed and absorbed their aesthetics, their chauvinism, the weird stories each one told…  She then opted to, in a sense, recreate those aspects- and build scenes from them.  Graft that onto an antique store/mid-century thrift look of bright pop art and handmade crochet, and the world of Viva becomes entirely apparent.  Full-on artifice is the goal, garish yet fully compelling.  In any case, it’s completely engulfing.  Viva, if nothing else, is the remarkable retro result of 10,000 trips to every thrift shop and Goodwill in the tri-state area.

For her tale of a blasé suburban housewife in 1972 America, Biller not only wrote Viva, but completely created it from the ground up.  She also directed, produced, designed, built, shopped for, costumed, edited, composed original music, created animated sequences, and stars in the film.  (That list of her jobs may well not be complete). A Renaissance woman in every filmmaking sense, Biller proves herself to be the effectual opposite of her character, Barbi.  She utilizes her own unique pucker-face looks and curvature to play into the blank-lady chic of the swingin’ seventies.  

Barbi is checked out by pure osmosis; an incurious homemaker with a permanent thousand-mile-gaze.  That is, until some inner passion is awakened within her.  Slowly but surely, Barbi and her neighbor Sheila (the late Bridget Brno) are passively drawn into a supposedly progressive world of increasingly sinful soap and suds.  As proclamations of new female freedoms give way to moonlighting as a prostitute named “Viva”, Barbi finds her desire “to live” nevertheless restricted to a simply different kind of man’s world.

Biller, though, couldn’t be less interested in social preaching or activism.  Exhibitionism and voyeurism trump feminism, though Viva is a thoroughly female vision and undertaking.  Vapid artifice and swingin’ sexual revolutionaries are not just where it’s at, but all there is.  Every scene of Viva takes place in a distinct non-reality, be it a studio backlot or Biller’s apartment dressed and redressed.  Completely independent and handcrafted to a tee, (and a tea- always with a spot of vodka and an olive,) Biller achieves her performance art-like purpose of placing herself within the Never-never Land construct of Hugh Hefner’s low grade fever dreams.  She does it not as protest, not in anger, but out of sheer curiosity, as if visiting another planet- removed, but exploratory.

One thing Biller states on her very informative audio commentary track is that she was out to prove that she’s no prude- and boy, does she.  Yet, for all the nudity in Viva (and there’s a TON), most if not all of it is brazenly non-sexual.  (A nudist camp, in the bathtub, etc.)  Even in the film’s requisite happenin’ orgy sequence, there’s a deeply otherworldly remove.  It’s fair to wonder how anyone could possibly find themselves turned on amid it’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls-on-Mars aesthetic.

If Biller is quote-unquote up to anything with Viva, she is forcibly siphoning any authentic sexuality from the early 1970s scene (her parents’ generation), leaving only the facades; the hot-dealing have-it-all simulacra the Playboy heyday.  The movie is therefore a simulacrum of a simulacrum- empty of soul and spirit by design, and several times over.  It’s a deep dive into one woman’s obsessive recreation of when coffee tables mattered, every drink was stiff, and getting chased around the boss’s desk could be part of any lady’s given workday.

It must be rather strange working on a film set where the director’s nipples are visible much of the time, but such were the working conditions of Viva.  (This is verified in the eight-plus minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, depicting an altogether professional set, but with the chief in sheer nighties alongside the standard cargo shorts and ball caps of the small crew).  This behind-the-scenes footage reel is narrated by Biller in a personality-free mechanical monotone not unlike how Jackie Kennedy narrated her landmark television special, A Tour of the White House.  

If there’s a problem with Viva, it’s that it’s too much of a good thing.  At two very full hours, the larky experiment wears out its welcome and then some.  It’s as though Biller, in her enthusiastic amassing of the vintage Playboy material, ended up drawn into too many of its outlandish scenarios, and couldn’t bear to leave any out.  A David Hemings-in-Blow-Up wannabe suburban husband with a new Nikon snapping pictures of his bikini clad wife and neighbor as they giggle and frolic by the pool gives way to a towel-clad wife jealously eyeing her husband’s flirting with another woman, which gives way to a man using his cigarette to light another woman’s cigarette while a second woman looks on… and on, and on, and on.  However many ridiculous male fantasies that scream “threesome!” that Viva actually needs, one can’t rightly say.  But it’s certain that there’s a wearying abundance of that kind of living going on here.

Via this unlikely feature-length exploratory piece, Biller seems to have wandered into the valid notion that a transference of life occurred sometime in the modern mid-century.  As society become supposedly looser and more carefree, the very vibrancy and spark of life shifted out of people and into the inanimate world they’d erected around themselves.  In other words, the decor sure pops, but the inhabitants are proportionately lifeless.  Viva then, from its ironic title on through, depicts every aspect of this that it could muster on Biller’s meager means.  The question is, how long and how far will you swing with it.